We said goodbye to El Castillo and headed north to Rio Celeste. The drive was smooth sailing which surprised us. The roads were in good condition and we didn’t encounter any traffic or other issues. We stopped off at a roadside soda and had some of the most delicious food including pan fried tilapia.
We stayed two nights at Hotel Catarata Rio Celeste and visited the National Park Volcano Tenorio during the day. We booked two nights in anticipation of being muddy after the hike. With hindsight, we could have stayed only one night but it was good to have some down time after hiking.
The following day, we drove up to the park entrance, paid about $1USD to park and $12USD per person. We arrived just after it opened to beat the crowds and to have the hiking trail to ourselves. We hiked in about 30 minutes and then took the stairs down to see the waterfall. It was very impressive and stunning. We were happy to have arrived early and have the place to ourselves for awhile.
We then ascended the staircase and continued the easy hike further into the park where two rivers meet and the water turns a celestial blue. While seeing this sight was interesting, it definitely was a let down compared to the waterfall. If you are not an avid hiker, I would recommend skipping the hike and just marvel at the waterfall.
Swimming in the park is not allowed but there are many points on the river outside the park that you can access. Just park on the side of the road and hop in the water. The water is cold but can be very refreshing after hiking.
We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.
There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.
While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.
We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.
We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.
Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.
When we flew into the Bucharest airport, we immediately rented a car and toured the country. For the most part we stayed in the Transylvania region. We used the freedom of a rental car to visit small towns and to reach trailheads for hiking.
We came upon a cave near Rasnov fortress on the way to Brasov. The short tour that was given was very informative. And at $15RON per person, it was definitely worth a visit.
We visited the Rasnov fortress which is not very well preserved but I think that’s why I liked it so much. Tickets were $12RON and while there is not a ton of information about the fortress, the views are spectacular.
The Deva fortress was free to enter though you must pay for the funicular if you ride it. Since we had a car, we drove to the top and parked. There is no information about the fortress but the views of Deva belong were amazing. Plus, the day we went there were only a few other people in the fortress.
The Rupea fortress was probably my favorite of the fortress we visited. It sits atop a hill overlooking the small town of Rupea and the fields outside of town. There were many signs with information to help you understand the history of this place. The tickets cost $10RON which made it a great and cheap stop off. Also, if you are looking for lunch or dinner while in Rupea, check out Casa del Gusto. While the name makes you think of Italian dishes, the Romanian dishes are what we ate and they were delicious.
The Libearty Bear Sancutary was another place that we could not have accessed easily without a car (or being on a tour). The tour guide tells you about the lives of the bears who have been rescued from carnivals, zoos, etc. and what their lives are like now. Visiting this sanctuary was an amazing experience to see bears (and some wolves) returned to nature with the help of their human friends. The tickets were not cheap, $40RON (and to take photographs with a camera costs extra) but I am so glad that were able to visit. Tours are only given in the morning so plan accordingly.
The Fortified Evangelical Church in Harman was a wonderful side trip from Brasov. For about $10RON per person, you can wander around the church, the grounds and the fortified walls of this compound. This was the first of many fortified churches we visited throughout the country. Keep an eye out as you wander around the country as they are everywhere and they each some something to offer those who love history.
We booked an apartment on the edge of the city center via Booking.com. The price was right and the apartment was well furnished. Also, the location for parking was perfect. When we were looking to book a hotel, all of the hotels stated that parking was included but then when you would read reviews it was not explained very well that the parking available is actually public parking. When you’re in the very the middle of the city center, you must pay for parking. This is difficult because the parking meter machines only take coins which are very difficult to get your hands on. You can pay by SMS but only if you have a Romanian cell phone number. What we found was there if you park on the edge of the city center, parking is 100% free but finding a spot is difficult. If you are on a block with no parking signs or parking meters, then it is free.
We sent three nights in Brasov and while you could definitely see the highlights of the historic center in one day, it was nice to have the extra time to hike around the city walls and see all that the city has to offer. Due to bad weather, we did not have an opportunity to hike up to the famous Brasov town sign but we did get some time walking around the trails in some of the parks on the edge of the city.
The majority of our time in Brasov was spent wandering around the town and eating. While most of the restaurants we visited were in the center of town, they didn’t feel like tourist traps. Our favorites were Pilvax, La Ceaun, and Vino e Sapori. For drinks we frequented Cafe Central which had cheaper drinks than some of the bars closer to the center of town.
Towards the end of the trip (after having to say goodbye to most of our travel buddies), my friend Jackie and I made our way out to Stonehaven for two nights. We stayed in an adorable Airbnb right in town. It was a great place for us to unwind after the roadtrip and handful of days in Edinburgh.
There are some tasty restaurants in town; we found two that really hit the spot for us. We popped into Graingers Delicatessen for a light lunch. The sandwiches were tasty and substantial. Priced at £3-4GBP each, it was an affordable option in town.
We also visited The Bay Fish & Chips takeaway shop. We went for dinner and while there was a line, we only waited about 15 minutes. There’s no indoor seating but we were lucky enough to snag one of the picnic tables out front. We split the extra large fish and chips which was more than enough food. We could have easily split the regular sized-option and still been stuffed. At £10GBP, it was a very cheap meal and some of the best fish and chips I had while on the trip.
I think my favorite part of Stonehaven was the coastal walk to Dunnottar Castle. There is a path from the south end of town that continues to the castle. It was one of the most breathtaking hikes we took on this trip. We didn’t go into the castle as it was closing soon after we arrived so we sat and enjoyed the view instead. We also walked along the beach in town and out on the harbor. Stonehaven was a lovely last stop in Scotland.
My friends and I drove from Glasgow, up into the highlands to John o’ Groats, and then back down to Edinburgh. During this long road trip, we found some great little spots to stop and break up the drive.
-We visited the town of Oban for a visit to the whisky distillery. While trying to figure out what to do about lunch, we realized that Dunstaffnage Castle was on a bluff overlooking the water not far from Oban. We popped into Tesco, picked up some picnic items, and drove to the castle.
-We took an afternoon to hike to Sandwood Bay Beach on our way to John o’ Groats. The hike was not difficult but was longer than expected. We estimated it to be 4.5 miles from the parking area all the way to the beach. The hike was nice but not as spectacular as the views of the beach. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. Also, here is a link to a video of the beach.
-We stopped in Inverness for lunch at the Kitchen Restaurant which was very delicious and well priced. After lunch, we walked to Miele’s Gelateria which totally hit the spot after an amazing lunch.
-When we visited Aberdeen for the afternoon, we had a recommendation to go to Slains Castle for lunch. While the inside of the bar and restaurant is quite interesting, the food was only mediocre. I would recommend going in for a drink and to wander around but find your meal someplace else.
-We stopped off in Perth one day to stretch our legs and eat lunch. We stumbled across this quaint little French inspired place, the Tabou Bistro. Everything was amazing from the homemade soup to the salmon salad to the charcuterie platter. For lunch under £12GBP, it was a great find.
We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.